CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 JACOB M. ROE III
B Company, 4-227th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion
Fort Hood, Texas
During the fifth month in a 15-month deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08, I was serving as a company instructor pilot in my attack reconnaissance battalion. We had been in country long enough to begin establishing a good battle rhythm. Our mission for the day was a two-ship armed reconnaissance patrol in our sector designed to prevent and identify insurgent activity at known hot spots. The crew mix had me in the trail aircraft. The lead crew consisted of a 1,700-hour pilot in command in the backseat on his second tour in country. He was paired with a 700-hour co-pilot gunner on his first tour in country.
We conducted our normal briefing at the tactical operations center followed by our team brief, where we collected weather, NOTAMS, discussed our scheme of maneuver and completed our individual crew briefs and then headed out for pre-flight of the aircraft. The only thing to note from our normal routine was that we briefed for a possible follow-on VIP escort mission and that weather was going to begin deteriorating after nightfall. We were scheduled to be down well before the weather, but we agreed to watch it closely in case our schedule unexpectedly was extended.
The normal mission set went as planned with no significant events until about two and a half hours in, when we got our mission change from the battalion for the VIP escort. Since it was already so late, we had assumed the escort had been scrubbed but knew we could complete it as long as the Black Hawks were on their timeline.
We verified our link-up point and headed toward an outlying forward operating base to pick up our Black Hawks. We had worked with this battalion, but I still opted to land and conduct a face-to-face multi-ship mission brief. We updated the weather, which was forecast to be good through ETA plus one hour after our mission timeline.
Our formation took off on time and we had about a 20-minute flight en route to our final destination. With the sun lowering on the horizon and a haze in the air, the visibility began to decrease to the minimum required for VFR flight. I called the formation air mission commander in the Black Hawk and asked if they still had good visibility to continue. He replied, “We can make it.”
Closing within 10 miles of our final destination, my front-seater noticed our approach path was going to take us through a marked no-fly area on our digital map. The no-fly was for a JLENS observation balloon which could be anywhere from 150 feet above ground level up to 800 feet AGL. It was definitely in our vertical path since we were currently holding 500 feet AGL. I told him to call the Black Hawk and verify they were aware of the hazard. After what seemed like 20 minutes, which was actually closer to 10 seconds, they radioed back that they had no visual on the JLENS and were not aware of the no-fly. I radioed and told them to make an immediate right turn of 20 degrees, which they promptly accomplished. We circumnavigated the no-fly and successfully completed the mission without further surprises.
With hindsight being 20/20, I now realize a couple of important things I should have considered to ensure we did not have such a close call. First, don’t allow your overconfidence to get yourself and team in a situation where you should just return to base and continue the mission another day with better visibility. Second, even if you are not the lead aircraft in a formation, remember that as a PC of your aircraft, you are ultimately responsible for where your aircraft flies.